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Fraser with rescued white rhino

Rhino Poaching in Africa

Rhino poaching is reaching epidemic proportions with a new more high-tech militaristic edge.  In 2010 poaching in South Africa saw over 330 rhinos slaughtered, an increase of 70% on 2009.  Areas such as Krugersdorp have seen their last rhino lost, they are not alone in this.  Whilst South Africa has been strongest hit due to its sizeable population, poaching is increasing and causing alarm in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, & Tanzania who recently lost a black rhino in the Serengeti.  However 95% of all rhino poaching still takes place in South Africa & Zimbabwe greatly aided by a more sinister and efficient military & organised crime approach.


Poaching is increasingly indiscriminate, evidenced by the slaughter of a pregnant rhino & calf in the Hoedspruit area of Limpopo on January 10th this year.  Vaalwater & Lephalale also in Limpopo have witnessed unmarked/blacked out helicopters in the area, predominantly late afternoon, searching for rhino which are GPS'd for an assault that evening.  Poachers return to the marked area and track the rhinos from there, carrying out their bloody deeds in quick time (helicopter rotor blades do not have to be switched off) and leaving as quickly as they arrived.  Tranquilizing an animal can take 7 minutes which is no time at all bearing in mind the distance and terrain to be covered by police, rangers and wildlife authorities who arrive to find only the painful gruesome aftermath.  Many rhinos are killed instantly and in many regards these are the lucky ones.  A sickening new twist revolves around the implied & also proven involvement of wildlife workers usually charged with the wellbeing of the species.  These people include vets, park rangers, and even conservation groups!  This new development sees animals darted and their horn removed, the animal left to wake up from its trauma with a missing face and severe bloodless inevitably leading to death anyway.  Such ingrained criminal behaviour spreading to wildlife workers makes the task of finding and killing rhino more easy, and the resources available to such groups far outweighs those charged with taking the fight to them on behalf of the rhino.  Even in some of the best protected areas such as Lewa in Kenya, they have had to record their first poaching of rhino in 20 years.

  Young rhinos in Kruger Park, South Africa.


Demand for rhino horn is fuelled by the increasing wealth of many middle-class Chinese & Vietnamese who see rhino horn as much as a status symbol as for its (alleged & disproven) traditional medicinal benefits.  Vietnamese television aired an interview with a govt. minister who proclaimed to a watching nation his cancer had been cured by use of rhino horn.  In Pretoria a Vietnamese diplomat was caught buying illegal rhino horn outside the embassy and her punishment was simply recall back to Hanoi.  Matters are not helped when celebrities like Elle MacPherson proclaim the benefits of rhino horn as a beauty treatment.  MacPherson quickly retracted her claims after howls of protest but the damage was already done.  It is naive to think the problem is restricted to race or geographical location, how many other celebrities or members of the public engage in the use of such products through false belief or even curiosity?  In the UK a rhino which was sent to an abattoir for destruction (from Colchester Zoo) under CITES legislation ended up having its horn removed by a worker at the abattoir and with the aid of an antiques dealer the horn ended up inside a carving and destined for China as a cancer cure.  DNA proved the horn came from the dead rhino & the antiques dealer (Donald Allison) received 4 years in prison for his efforts.  Neither the zoo nor abattoir were implicated.  

The increasing power of Asian economies has made it economically & politically difficult for African authorities to clamp down on such activities as they depend so heavily on aid, loans, trade in oil, minerals, and help with construction work, dam building, road maintenance & construction.  A case in point is the proposed Serengeti highway which threatens 1 of the world's last great migrations.  The road being constructed to access minerals for mobile phone and laptop manufacture is being sold on the principle of benefitting local people.  Yet, these local people are up in arms with the threat to their wildlife, their way of life.  Attempts to propose an alternative route have been mooted and funds offered by the World Bank but the Tanzanian govt. refuses to consider these.  The main beneficiary of this road?  The Chinese.  African ports are full of Asian ships, and ports are being renovated or constructed largely with Chinese funding.  Even farming in Africa is falling into Asian hands with many farms owned, worked and harvested by immigrant workers, Zambia being a prime example.

Rhino left to bleed to death


The majority of the rhino horn poached is going for medicine rather than dagger handles so popular still in the Middle-East.  The 15 year poaching high is having a knock on effect.  Wildlife auctions now see rhinos left unsold as private reserves no longer want them on site as they act as a magnet for poachers.  Even if a game farmer wished to take the risk the animal itself is now uninsurable so he takes on a huge financial risk which may bankrupt the farm, leaving countless animals and workers at the mercy of poachers & struggling economies.  An animal that costs 1 million Rand to purchase and can be lost with no compensation is a risk few wish to take.  Ed Herns of the Lion & Rhino Park outside Jo'burg proposed putting small amounts of cyanide into the rhino's horn as a deterrent.  With no blood flow in the horn (horn is made from keratin which is the same as your finger/toe-nails and hair but with fungus on it) the poison would not affect the rhino but when ingested by the end user would cause illness.  He has been told by authorities to do so may lead to his prosecution.  Inserting dye & micro-chipping of horn has limited value as poachers will remove the chip.


Prices for horn have risen & continue to do so since this graphic was produced


Some rhino poachers have been re-arrested while out on bail, one individual in Nelspruit in Limpopo was arrested while bailed for eleven other poaching offences!  Bail has typically been set at 1500 to 1 million Rand usually some way towards the bottom end.  This is small beer compared to the rewards for 1 successful horn poached.  The average weight of a horn is 7kg and with prices up to US$90,000 per kg there is plenty of money around to make it financially rewarding.  Things are moving away from the days of local villagers simply trying to put food on the table.  Increased use of military tactics, high velocity rifles, night vision, helicopters, tranquilizer drugs etc are matched only by the high level contacts the organised gangs have (discrepancies between import/export records of South Africa, China & Vietnam) and the funds they have to use top lawyers who search for the slightest procedural error on which to have cases thrown out.  Govt. stockpiles of horn have been raided and current hunting rules routinely abused.  Such influence and demand means the poachers are no longer simply targeting national parks, with animal rehab centres holding rhinos, or privately owned game reserves also on the hit-list.  This becomes ever more the case now that the army are being used in some national parks to try & aid the wildlife authorities.  Highlighting the seriousness of some of the incidents where poachers do clash with wildlife authorities, fire fights have lasted as long as 2 hours, and due to the overwhelming fire-power of the gangs, wildlife authorities on occasion resort to starting bush fires to flush them out on  grounds of their own safety.  Current rates of poaching will outstrip natural growth numbers within 2 years. 



Rhino horn being sold in a Vietnamese 'traditional medicine' shop                   Rhino horn cup 


So where are we?


Without radical action the ultimate future of the rhino is in private collections & zoos.  In South Africa the Civil Aviation Authority is making efforts to start tracking movements of these blacked out helicopters.  There are now multi-agency efforts to tackle the problem involving SAN Parks, Hawk Police Units, Wildlife Authorities, CAA, National Prosecutors Agency and the Dept. of Nature & Parks.  Bishop Desmond Tutu has spoken out against the destruction of African heritage and governmental talks between the South Africans & Vietnamese have taken place.  There are also plans to withdraw the granting of bail to those on poaching charges.  Proceeds of crime legislation is being used and so far vehicles, aircraft & 7 farms have been confiscated.  Some success has been achieved for example in Sept/Oct 2010 11 people were arrested in Modiomolle in Limpopo as part of a poaching syndicate believed to have been responsible for the killing of over 100 animals.  This particular group included businessmen, wildlife workers and 2 vets.  Dr. Karel Toet & his wife Marisa who run Limpopo Wildlife (game capture & relocation) and the Nylstroom Animal Clinic among them.  Key to further progress must be at governmental level with the Chinese & Vietnamese, but also at the prosecutorial level, with far more emphasis on the top end of syndicates rather than low level practitioners as at present.  Without that change the demand and finances will continue to entice people to make a fast buck.   Poaching syndicate on trial at Modiomolle       Poached rhino in South Africa

Some eco-projects now offer people the opportunity to pay for darting a rhino, where the horn is then cut off to reduce the likelihood of poaching.  Do not think horn removal ends any probability of poaching.  The horn grows back and any visible sign of a horn makes the animal a target due to the rewards on offer.  Financing anti-poaching is problematic due to the vast areas that need to be protected and the cost of doing so.  Some environmental groups are spending as much as 72% of revenue on anti-poaching. Others have even called for a Richard Leakey cause celebre type ceremonial burning of stockpiled rhino horn to raise awareness.  Leakey's burning of ivory (in the Kenyan case) created a public storm, transformed the perception of ivory products, and allied to high professional ethics & training, and a shoot-to-kill policy on poachers, led to US$300M coming in donations, US$140M from the World Bank.  Individuals and groups need to start putting money where their mouth is, proceeds of poaching crime must be used in anti-poaching efforts and not siphoned off, and people must speak loudly with one voice.  What is being waged on the rhino population is a wildlife genocide, and unless we speak out NOW, the Big 5 safari will be no more.  Ask yourself, do you want to tell your grandchildren you are part of the generation that welcomed in the Big 4?